Coolest Things to Do in Southeast Wisconsin for Free (or Almost Free)
There are so many cool things to do in Southeast Wisconsin for free. There is more to Wisconsin than its breweries, their beloved football team, the Green Bay Packers and being the Dairy State. Wisconsin is also known for being a little quirky, a little different and brimming with culture and history.
There are a lot of free and unusual activities that are socially distant and fun ways to spend a weekend.
Paradise Springs Nature Trail
Crystal clear waters and ancient spring house ruins await. Visiting Paradise Springs Nature Trail is not to be missed for nature lovers and history enthusiasts.
In 1927, Louis J. Petit, a bank president and owner of L.J. Salt Company originally purchased the land with the sparkling emerald waters and established the spring house. The remains of the picturesque stone building still stand at the end of the trail.
Petit also established a stone pillared entrance, a horse track, 9 hole golf course, wading pool and shuffleboard and tennis courts on the property.
Later owners including August “Auggie” Uihlein Pabst, a Pabst Brewing Co executive further established the area. Paradise Springs Resort hotel and Spa were built in 1938 and a water bottling plant was developed. The hotel closed post depression and the bottling plant followed in the 1960’s. The hotel remains were removed in the 1970’s.
The only remaining structures and evidence of the history of Paradise Springs are the ruins of the spring house and a slab in the ground by the shelter and picnic area that once was the tennis and shuffleboard courts.
The Paradise Springs nature trail leads past a trout filled crystal clear stream to the spring filled pond. The emerald aquamarine water reflects the surrounding trees. The image of the spring house on the still pond resembles an ancient roman ruin.
At the end of the wooded trail the fieldstone walls of the old spring house appear. The building is now without its original copper domed roof and window glass.
Inside the crumbling structure, the 47°F. water bubbles out from the underground spring at 30,000 gallons per hour. Fish lazily circle the inner concrete well and frogs can be heard calling across the pond. The spring house itself is a photographer’s dream with a number of framing opportunities through windows and doorways and the reflections in the clear water.
Across the road from Paradise Springs sits Gotten Cabin, which is also worth a visit. The cabin was originally built by Henry L.Gotten, one of the 1st settlers of Waukesha Co. in the mid 19th century.
Paradise Springs Nature Trail is located in the Kettle Moraine State Forest in the southern unit northeast of Eagle WI on Highway N. The .65 mile easy loop trail is open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. The Springs are within an hour drive of Milwaukee and Madison.
Dr Evermor Sculpture Park
For something truly unique, Dr Evermor’s Sculpture Park is a sight to behold. This sprawling metal structure park contains the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world according to the Guiness Book of World Records.
Forevertron sits at the heart of the park and is 50 feet tall and 120 feet wide weighing in at 320 tons.
Dr Evermor’s Sculpture Park is the creation of Tom Avery, the man behind the metal; and is without a doubt one of the coolest free things to do in Southeast Wisconsin. Avery was born in Brooklyn, WI in 1938 and worked as a demolition expert, running a salvage and demo company. Much of his career was spent taking down power plants, railcars, breweries and more than 300 factories.
When Tom Avery retired in 1983, he gave up destroying and began creating. Using metal scrap accumulated over the years, Avery began construction of Forevertron and a backstory and persona to match the park.
Tom Avery became Dr Evermor, a Victorian era inventor from Eggington England. Forevertron would be the vessel to launch Dr Evermor “into the heavens on a magnetic lightning force beam.”
Forevertron was constructed resembling a spaceship with a metal egg at the center. Avery used a 6000 pound transformer from a demoed Wisconsin power house, a huge compressor, two dynamos built by Thomas Edison and a decontamination chamber from Apollo 11 in his creation.
Nearby is a metal gazebo for Queen Victoria and the prince to have a front row seat for Dr Evermor’s epic launch into the heavens inside a glass ball, in a copper egg.
A larger than life metal telescope sits alongside Forevertron for onlookers to witness Evermor’s entrance into the heavens.
In a nearby meadow, metal birds with musical instruments welded into their bodies wait to play in celebration of the big celestial event. There are more than 70 metal constructed, “Gawker birds” each named and dated, who stick their necks out to check out the UFO in their field. A Epicurean barbecue train was also constructed near the launch zone.
Tom Avery…A.K.A Dr Evermor passed away in the spring of 2020 and with any luck, has “highballed it to heaven.” His family continues to care for the park and it’s visitors.
Avery created multiple “tea houses” dotting the property which he envisioned as workstations for up and coming metal sculptors to hone their craft in his absence.
Avery, a self proclaimed rebel was quoted while remarking on his creative works:
“I am Tom Every from Brooklyn, Wisconsin: the junk dealer — and now I am Dr. Evermor: the crazy guy, ok?”
Get caught up in the man, the myth and the fantastical creation that is Dr Evermor’s Sculpture Park.
Dr Evermor Sculpture Park is located off highway 12 in North Freedom WI about 50 minutes from Madison. The park is open from April to December, Thursday through Monday. The hours are 11-5.
Stone Farmstead Ruins and St Mary of the Oaks Shrine
As anyone who lives in the midwest knows, ancient ruins are tough to come by. The Stone Farmstead Ruins, located about 30 minutes from Madison will satisfy history buffs and photographers alike.
The unexpected stone ruins of the 1852 Matz farmhouse and barn remain at the top of the hill. Pathways lead through the nearby meadows.
Friedrich, the original owner, built the structure about 10 years after his civil war service. He was a German immigrant who commented on the living conditions in America at the time:
“An American farmer is not set up right away like a German. He simply builds himself a house so he can live and the barn is finished right away. The sky is the roof and the ground is the floor. That’s the kind I have.”
The house burned down in 1949 and became available for public viewing in 2012.
Across route 12 within the Indian Lake County Park, the St Mary of the Oaks Shrine is tucked into the hills and is worth a visit.
Built in 1858, when Wisconsin itself was only 9 years old, by John Enders and his son Peter who used an open team to haul tons of local stone to the top of the hill for the church’s construction. Enders made a religious vow to God that he would build the chapel after his family was safe and protected from the diphtheria epidemic.
Climb the wooden steps less than ½ a mile to the top of the hill to check out this tiny chapel. At a fork, stay left and follow the path. A number of benches are available to rest along the way as it is uphill the whole way.
The small chapel was built using German construction methods. A stained glass cross is embedded in the door. The chapel can fit 4 people and the plaques inside are in German. Wildflowers grow around the chapel. Take a moment to enjoy the view of Indian Lake from the top of the hill.
The Stone Farmstead Ruins are located in Cross Plains WI, not far off Highway 12 on Highway 19.
Walk around the Lake Geneva Shore Path
Lake Geneva is located in Southeast Wisconsin between Chicago and Milwaukee and has been a tourist destination for visitors from around the world. The town is popular for weekend getaways for residents of the big cities and was originally built up by big name Chicago millionaires such as the Wrigley and Maytag families.
Summer homes in the form of mansions line the lake. Boat rides are available for dinner cruises or mansion sightseeing tours that give a history of the homes on the lake.
The Lake Geneva Shore Path navigates around the 21 mile perimeter of the lake, through the backyards of the mansions for a stunning view. Most homes boast white piers and stepping stones or paving along the way. A small guide of the lake is available at the local bookstore to help identify famous homes along the trail. The route begins in town near Riviera Beach.
There are no restrooms or places to stop along the way until hikers reach William’s Bay at about the halfway point. However some residents have placed benches along their section of the trail for hikers to have a quick break.
Chuck’s Restaurant is a welcome stop at the halfway point (about 11 miles). Taxis are available for those who need a lift back to the starting point.
Visit Yerkes Observatory to see the largest refractory telescope in the world. Thomas Edison himself viewed the heavens through this giant scope.
For a not so free dinner, a stop in the historic Victorian Baker House is a favorite for locals and tourists alike. The staff are decked out in Victorian era dress and guests are encouraged to pick out an elaborate hat to wear while dining from their large display.
Guests are seated in various locations on the main floor of the mansion. Seats are available near the piano at a large dining table or at tall backed era type chairs at a nook near the living room fireplace. Sit on the screened patio overlooking the deep blue lake. At sunset, all diners are summoned outside to the yard with water views for a toast to the day and are treated to a brief history of the house.
Lake Geneva is located off Highway 12 and is home to many free and not so free activities.
Kohler Andrae State Park and Lakeside Trail
For an afternoon of soothing lakefront views and tranquility, head to the Kohler Andrae Lakeside Trail near Sheboygan WI. The picturesque Dunes Cordwalk wooden boardwalk trail runs through the golden sand dunes parallel to Lake Michigan, one of the 5 great lakes.
Named for John Michael Kohler and Terry Andrae, the trail offers scenic views and fresh pine air along 2.5 miles of sandy beach. The park was originally two adjoining parks, the Terry Andrae State Park, established in 1927 and the John Michael Kohler State Park which was established in 1966. The 988 acres are not managed as one park. The Kohler Andrae State Park contains three hiking trails and two nature trails.
The Kohler Andrae State Park is opened 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, year round and is an hour and a half north of Milwaukee. Parking on site with a Wisconsin State Park sticker.
Aztalan Indian Mounds
Another unique and free way to spend the day is to take a trip to Aztalan Indian Mounds. Aztalan is a National Historic landmark since 1966.
Local Native American people lived in this location along the Crawfish River between A.D. 900-1200. There was plentiful fishing and the 20 acre area was good for farming.
Three 900 year old ceremonial platform mounds can be seen on the property. The mounds were created by the Native Mississippian people who had migrated from Cahokia, which is now southern Illinois. A stockade was also built surrounding the village.
This rarely found ancient settlement gives insight to the lives of the earliest inhabitants. Pottery and tools have been unearthed. There is also some evidence of cannibalism in the dorm of butchered and charred ancient human bones. It is unclear why the village was abandoned.
Current excavations continue to unearth clues about the lifestyle of these ancient dwellings. A brochure is available for a self guided walking tour of the grounds. Grills and picnic tables are available for use.
Aztalan is open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. year round. It is located near Fort Atkinson and is less than an hour from Madison an hour and a half from Milwaukee. (N6200 County Rd Q – Jefferson, WI 53549) Parking is available on site with a Wisconsin State Park sticker.
Visit the Bronze Fonz Along the Milwaukee River Walk
For an authentic Milwaukee experience, stroll the Milwaukee River Walk. This paved riverside trail leads more than 20 blocks through three distinct neighborhoods. The trail travels past ever changing art exhibitions through the Historic Third Ward, Downtown Milwaukee and Beerline B neighborhoods,
In the Historic Third Ward, take a stop at the Milwaukee Public Market which was named one of the best indoor public markets in the nation by Frommer’s. Walk past outdoor cafes and breweries along the way.
The downtown area passes through the theater district and live music can be heard during the many outdoor summer festivals, Take a stroll down Old World Third Street, a historic, German cobblestone street with 19th century European style architecture and an Old German Beerhall.
In the Beerline B neighborhood, the northernmost section of the Riverwalk, new condos and modern boutiques. On Brewer’s Hill sit a number of historic mansions owned by the beer barons of Milwaukee such as Schlitz and Pabst during the early brewery boom.
Noteworthy sights along the Riverwalk include the outdoor art gallery RiverSculpture! Twenty sculptures are currently on display including the beloved Gertie the Duck.
In 2008, The Bronze Fonz took up permanent residence along the Riverwalk. The five foot 6 inch replica of Arthur Fonzarelli, A.K.A. Fonzie from the series Happy Days. What could be cooler than a photo with the Fonz.
The Riverwalk was established in 1993 and and is open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.
Cup O’ Joe Coffee House
For the price of a cup of coffee, pop into the Cup O’ Joe Coffee House in Twin Lakes WI to reenact scenes from the television show, “Friends.” This small town cafe offers homemade soups and sandwiches daily including an amazing pesto grilled cheese.
Stepping into Cup O’Joe Coffee House is like stepping onto the set of Friends. Grab a steaming cup of coffee, reserve a spot on “The Couch,” the actual orange couch from the Central Perk coffee house that was purchased from Warner Brothers. Photos and memorabilia from the popular show fill the cafe.
Cup O’ Joe is located about an hour south of Milwaukee. and is open 7 a.m. – 4 p.m. most days with later weekend hours and is closed on Mondays.
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